Tick, Tock, Tick, Tock, Boom

Assaf Gavron has seized time as a metaphor for his funny, poignant, and nuanced look at the decades’ long conflict in the Middle East. If what you know about the Israel-Palestine dispute comes from reading newspapers, listening to pundits on television, or watching startling images of screeching ambulances, demolished homes, and the comet-like puffs of smoke from bombs exploding in the air, then you are in for a treat with Gavron’s novel, Almost Dead, the story of Eitan Enoch and Fahmi Sabich.

Eitan Enoch, also known as Taninoch, shortened to Tanin and therefore called the croc (Tanin is Hebrew for crocodile), works for Time’s Arrow, a consulting company that makes its money by shaving precious seconds off directory assistance calls for other firms. Gavron pokes fun at his own invention by letting us know that the Japanese customers call it Taimaro! While the world’s longest conflict stagnates around them in decade after decade of uneasy peace amid bouts of pitched battle, these Israelis are busy making European and American companies more efficient.

Eitan lives in the bubble[1] of Tel Aviv, almost married to his lawyer girlfriend Duchi to whom he is now apathetic. He gets off a minibus moments before it is blown up by a suicide bomber. The blast kills Giora Guetta, a twenty-three year old security guard from the King David Hotel. Eitan tracks down Guetta’s girlfriend Shuli to give her Guetta’s last words and his PalmPilot, another miraculous survivor. En-route to Jerusalem, the croc’s car is attacked again and a soldier-hitchhiker dies from gunshot wounds. This is the first death that Eitan has witnessed up close, and it gives him a survivor’s euphoria. He reaches Jerusalem and spends most of his time with Shuli. Their growing relationship is cut short by a third bomb, which goes off in a café and sends Shuli into a deep coma. The croc, only scratched, becomes a reluctant national hero with this triple near-escape.

Eitan’s close calls with bombs and shootings, and the consequent changes in his life would themselves make for a good story in the hands of a competent novelist. But Gavron is better than that. He layers Eitan’s story with that of Fahmi, a Palestinian student, whose ambitions are thwarted by his brother’s thirst for revenge. If Eitan’s story is about time saved in seconds, Fahmi’s story is about time lost in days and years. Fahmi, after all, is lying comatose in a hospital remembering his life’s story while getting massaged by Svetlana, his Jewish nurse that he loves to hate. We learn how Fahmi’s mother dies during a week-long Israeli blockade of his village—an arbitrary act that is senseless both to the Arab villagers and to the Jewish soldiers enforcing it—and Gavron gives us this description of the fate of Fahmi’s grandfather:

First they threw him out of his village. Then he lived for eight years in a tent. Then, very slowly, he built himself a temporary home out of nothing. Some sheets of tin and a little dried mud; later, breeze blocks, mortar, cement for floors. Building his temporary home very slowly as the years pass, and his neighbours building their temporary homes very slowly. A whole neighbourhood being built, very slowly. A refugee camp turning into a town.

What took years for Fahmi’s grandfather takes minutes for a bulldozer to demolish “so that an armoured personnel carrier can go where it pleases.”

Gavron’s great coup is to set Fahmi and his brother as the Palestinian group behind the three attacks that Eitan the croc escapes. Thus, when Eitan becomes a national hero, Fahmi’s brother decides that the croc must become their new target. Gavron takes his time giving us Fahmi’s final attempt on Eitan, and the extended scene where Fahmi escapes capture by running away on a donkey is a pure delight to read. By a remarkable set of events (there are many coincidences[2] in this novel that, surprisingly, don’t stretch credulity), Fahmi ends up working as a cleaner in Eitan’s office. Does our reluctant fundamentalist succeed in killing Eitan, the croc? I’ll let you read Assaf Gavron’s wonderful new novel to find out.

Almost Dead has a well-constructed plot and is snappily paced. Gavron could have done without the mysterious subplot involving Giora Guetta, Shuli’s ex-boyfriend, but I was having such a good time that I was willing to overlook this faux CSI moment. Besides being a good read, this novel is a trove of information on the lives of ordinary people in Israel and the West Bank. Gavron’s Palestinian characters are not one-dimensional entities serving the plot. Their lives and actions stand up to and contrast the nuanced portrayal of Jewish life in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Though some sections of Fahmi’s story read like research notes, Gavron manages to depict human needs and desires on both sides of the conflict with empathy and humor.

Reading Gavron’s novel Almost Dead reminded me of a visit I made to Pakistan in December 2008. As an Indian-born Canadian, I expected to be treated gruffly, but found myself invited to long dinners and even longer conversations where no topic was taboo. I asked Nigar Ahmed, a well-known human rights campaigner, why everyone seemed to have so much time for me, a stranger in their midst. “It’s because we are underdeveloped,” she said. “Look at India. Now with their economy on full throttle, no one has time for socializing.”  Her words reminded me that when I was a child in India, sloth was prized there too. The best answer to the question: “What are you doing?” in those days used to be that wonderfully sub-continental phrase: “Time-pass.”

Gavron sets these two ways of living, one with and one without time, side-by-side in his novel. Eitan begins to lose control over time even as time began to catch up to Fahmi. In this nuanced approach to the ticking clock, Gavron has given us a new way to understand the lives of people caught between two worlds.

[1] A gay version of this narrative is available on film as The Bubble, an Israeli movie (originally titled Ha-Buah) directed by Eytan Fox and released in 2006.

[2] For another novel set up with several coinciding plotlines that might interest readers of Gavron, I recommend Mohammed Hanif’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes which looks at most if not all conspiracy theories surrounding the death of the Pakistani dictator Zia-ul-Haq.


  1. Pingback: Review of Almost Dead in the Tottenville Review blog « assafgavron.com: Media Archive

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